Death is always a difficult topic to discuss. It can be especially difficult when you have to have the discussion with small children. Given that dying is an inherent aspect of living and our society continues to age, this important discussion will occur more and more often for the parents of young children.
Here are some things to carefully consider when you are faced with calming your child’s fears and answering difficult questions regarding the death of a friend or family member.
For some reason, the American culture seems to insist on avoiding the primary issues of death and dying as much as possible. Mortality is not a topic that we readily prepare for when we begin to raise our families. We’re more concerned with paying bills, keeping our children happy and safe, and tackling the immediately pressing needs of now – "if" and "when" seldom crosses our minds.
As much for your own peace of mind as that of your other family members, set aside some time to truly explore your own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs concerning life and death. If you can reach your own state of understanding, it'll make it much easier for you to have that same conversation with your child when the time comes.
To quote a classic rock-n-roll song, "Nobody gets out of here alive." Someday, someway, we will all die. A physical death is every bit a part of life as living. You can point to myriad examples from nature that kids encounter every day to help them grasp this concept.
However, by all means, avoid using inappropriate metaphors, such as, "Grandpa is just sleeping." or "Aunt Jane has to take a long rest." This situation is traumatic enough for a child. Do not compound it by being dishonest or misleading. Grandpa isn’t sleeping. Your child will know that. Furthermore, you do not want that phrase to resonate through your child’s mind the night after the funeral when you tell your son or daughter it's "time to go to sleep."
There are countless sources of perspective and advice you can rely on. Trusted clergy members, for instance. Nearly all religions and philosophies have fairly concrete beliefs about life, death, and the "after life."
Naturally, you'll most want to rely on someone closely associated with your own belief system, but sometimes perspectives from outside of your own cherished beliefs can be helpful as well.
The magnificent people who write quality children’s literature have taken this subject well in hand. Depending on the age and maturity level of your child, when the time comes to have this conversation, you may well find that children's books can help.
A child’s friends or similarly aged cousins often are the best sources of compassion and condolences in times of death. Many times, these children will have experienced their own losses and can best articulate what that experience meant for them in terms your child can best comprehend.
Adults are often amazed at what comes out of children’s mouths. Children can be endlessly curious and sponge-like in their absorption of new information. Fortunately, they are not constrained by adult-like ways of thinking. They can reach new conclusions about old concepts on their own.
Allow them to share what they think, what they feel, and any questions they may have. You may find that you will not have to say very much at all as they talk themselves through their own doubts and fears to reach their own conclusions.
By demonstrating that you value their thoughts and feelings, you give them encouragement to more freely express and explore those thoughts and feelings.
Give your child as much time as they need to process the loss they've experienced. Do not expect or demand that your child continue on as though nothing has happened. Some children react immediately and recover immediately. Others will show little or no overt signs of grief for extended periods of time.
Much like adults, they can find their way to quickly go on with life, yet suffer sharp, brief periods of grief months and years later. The most important thing to remember is that your child will ultimately have to discover their own way of handling the grief they experience at the loss of a loved one.
You do not have to put on a brave face. The death of a friend or family member is a painful experience. Just as we may cry when physically injured, we can be expected to cry when mentally or spiritually injured. Your mature demonstration of grief will help your child understand how they can express feelings they have never experienced before.